Beyond the Basics: The Advanced Learner’s Guide to Japanese Honorifics

If you walked into a room with Prince William, Kate Middleton and the Obamas, would you drop a bunch of slang on them?

Would you have the nerve to look Kate Middleton in the eyes and call her “dude”?

If not, then you’ll want to learn how to properly address native Japanese speakers with respect.

It’s vital for showing respect to employers, family and even strangers!

You know all there is about basic grammar, common phrases and essential vocabulary.

And if I’m guessing right, you’ve already mastered the basic aspects of the Japanese honorifics.

Well done, grasshopper. Well done.


What if I told you there’s still much to learn about Japanese honorifics? That you only learned what seems to be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to addressing people properly?

Buckle up! Here’s an advanced guide to Japanese honorifics.

Advanced Japanese Honorifics: Honoring Family, Princesses, Teachers and Karate Masters

I’m sure you remember everything about common honorifics.

You know when to use ­–sama ­instead of ­–san. You know that you should call your karate instructor –sensei and not –chan.

We mentioned everything you need to know to use them effectively and we managed to clear up some common difficulties in doing so.

What we did not cover was the why. Why are honorifics so difficult to use in a natural way? What makes them so challenging and at the same time, so strangely unique?

If I were to sum it up in just one word: Translation.

The problem with these honorifics is that there’s no accurate equivalent in any language. At least not that I know of.

With such complex levels of intimacy, respect, formality and informality to acknowledge, this becomes an obvious problem for Japanese learners of various cultural identities who are trying to understand the concept of honorifics.

Just imagine the confusion if you try to literally translate what you might call your boss in Japanese into English: “John-sama” translates to “Master John” or “Sir John.”

Due to implications like this, it isn’t always possible to accurately translate what a certain honorific means and how it’s properly used.

Going Deeper into Japanese Honorific Titles

With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at those honorifics that belong in the advanced category, mainly due to their complexity, uniqueness and/or rarity of use.

My Dear Family

You can talk about family members in a few ways in Japanese, but it generally depends on your point of view and who you’re talking to:

1. Talking about your family

You can use these terms to tell your friend about your family members in most cases.

父 (ちち) — Father

母 (はは) — Mother

兄 (あに) — Older brother

姉 (あね) — Older sister

弟 (おとうと) — Younger brother

妹 (いもうと) — Younger sister

祖父 (そふ) — Grandfather

祖母 (そぼ) — Grandmother

おじ — Uncle

おば — Aunt

2. Talking to your family or about someone else’s family

When addressing your family directly or discussing another person’s family, you can use honorific family forms. We’ve got:

お父さん (おとうさん) — Father, Dad

This is pretty standard, but can be exchanged for a lot of variations depending on your relationship. 親父 (おやじ – dad, old man) can be used affectionately, or somewhat rudely to refer to an older gentlemen. Careful!

お母さん (おかあさん) — Mother, Mom

A lot of the time you can drop the お- prefix when speaking to your mother.

おじさん — Uncle

You can also use this one to describe an older man you may or may not know…but be careful how you use this one. You don’t want to go calling a 30-something an “old man” and ruin someone’s day. Another variation to watch out for is the rude おっさん (something like “geezer”).

おばさん — Aunt

You might have heard people in TV shows using this for women they don’t know, but perceive to be an older woman—you can imagine how much trouble this could get you into.

おじいさん — Grandpa

I’d save this one for people who are obviously senior citizens, if used at all. But using it with your grandfather is fine.

おばあさん — Grandma

Same goes for this one!

お兄さん (おにいさん) — Big brother

Use this for your (or someone’s) actual brother, or just a young man whose name you don’t know.

お姉さん (おねえさん) — Big sister

Also used to refer to young women. I’d opt for this one as opposed to おばさん if you want to be a polite little foreigner.

As you might have heard or read in your anime or manga, the お― at the beginning of the title can be dropped if the conversation is casual. You’ve probably even heard older brothers or sisters simply referred to as 兄ちゃん (にいちゃん) or 姉ちゃん (ねえちゃん) throughout an entire series.

You can use the common honorific ―ちゃん ­instead of ­―さん­ in order to lighten the tone, or you can opt to show a higher degree of respect by using ―さま­ .

For example, you might hear a brother speak fondly of his older sister with 姉ちゃん, or a young boy speak of his much older (and pretty scary) brother with お兄様 (おにいさま)…but the latter is hardly ever used anymore and might make you sound either a little dated or like a big wimp.

The use of honorifics within the family generally adheres to a hierarchical order. The younger members of the family will address an older member using an honorific. In the opposite direction (older to younger), calling by name is acceptable.

Another interesting usage note: If a younger member of the family is present, honorifics will shift. For instance, if we have a household of three generations, in front of the children the father will call his father “grandpa” or おじいさん and his wife “mother” or お母さん.

Company Policy

In a company, employees use their superior’s position in the company as an honorific. So, you’d distinguish which section head you’re complaining about by referring to them as 鈴木課長 (すずきかちょう).

A few of those include:

社長 (しゃちょう) — President

副社長 (ふくしゃちょう) — Vice president

部長 (ぶちょう) — Department head

課長 (かちょう) — Section head

係長 (かかりちょう) — Team leader

And because Japanese are so good at choosing the right honorific for the right situation, there are even honorifics to refer to the company itself. Expect to run into these during negotiations or when reading contracts:

弊社 (へいしゃ) — Our company, humble.

自社 (じしゃ) — Our company, neutral.

貴社 (きしゃ) — Your company, noble. [*Use 貴社 when it’s written.]

御社 (おんしゃ) — Your company, honorable. [*Use 御社 when it’s spoken.]

当社 (とうしゃ) — Our/your company, the company in question, neutral.

Martial Arts and Professional Titles

As we mentioned in the article about the common honorifics, in martial arts they usually use sensei for the dojo master and the senpai/kouhai system for the students.

Nevertheless, each martial arts organization may adopt their own honorific titles.

Just search for your favorite art and see what is considered the norm for honorific use.

Of course, there are some Japanese honorifics related to martial arts that are commonly used:

剣聖 (けんせい) — An honorary title given to a master swordsman

親方 (おやかた) — A sumo coach

師匠 (ししょう) — Martial arts coach

関 (ぜき) — Sumo wrestlers of the top divisions

There are also some honorifics especially for members of the clergy in religions:

法師 (ほうし) — Buddhist monk

神父 (しんぷ) — Catholic priest

牧師 (ぼくし) — Protestant pastor

Royal and Official Titles

Since honorifics developed in an era when royalty, power and honor were prevalent, it comes as no surprise that there are quite a lot of honorifics related to royalty and political status. Get your newspaper-reading chops with a few of these:

陛下 (へいか) 

Used after the titles “Emperor” or “Empress,” you’ll likely see this used when reporting on the goings on of the Imperial family.

殿下 (でんか)

Used after other titles like “King” or “Queen” to mean similar to “his/her Highness”

王女・姫 (おうじょ/ひめ) 

If you ever happen to be in the presence of a princess (or you’re joking around with a girl you’re trying to impress), this honorific is your friend.

王子 (おうじ) 

You may have heard this one in Japanese dramas or anime. It’s either affixed with ―様 (さま) as in 王子様(おうじさま), like “Prince Charming,” or it’s tacked on to a name, such as ハリー王子 (はりーおうじ), “Prince Harry.”

閣下 (かっか) 

Your Excellency, used for Prime Ministers, ambassadors, etc.

大統領 (だいとうりょう) 

President of a state…oh hey, オバマ大統領 (おばま だいとうりょう), “President Obama!”

My Utmost Respect

There are some situations when not even さま can express the level of respect you feel for a certain person.

In these situations you may want to use 上 (うえ) which literally means “above.” So you may hear someone’s father referred to as 父上(ちちうえ)if you happen to be watching a period drama or visiting the home of a family of martial artists.

My Master…

殿 (どの) is usually attached to a name when neither –san ­nor –sama is appropriate.

It’s a tricky little honorific that’s usually used when the person you refer to is at the same level as you but needs to be shown a bit higher respect than usual.

Not commonly used, it roughly has the meaning of master or lord but it certainly isn’t used in the same scope anymore.

Use the Force, Luke

Just like a Jedi Knight would, we must use the Force of advanced language learning to fully master the Japanese honorifics.

Like the Force in “Star Wars,” cultural awareness is something to be felt, something to instinctively know. You’ll just know when it’s appropriate to use a certain form or not.

My advice is this: Use the information in these two articles and get out there in the real world. Read books, talk to people and listen to different dialects.

In other words, live the language in its purest form.

Thanasis Karavasilis is a writer and lover of stories who was educated to be a teacher of English. He spends his time between worlds and inside pages; written or otherwise. You can get a glimpse of his adventures somewhere inside his hideout.

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